The malware lockdown in Havana and Hanoi

General purpose computers give journalists an incredible amount of power to create, research, and publish their work away from those who may wish to interfere. But such independence requires that the computer itself remain free and uncompromised by software that works against the journalist’s own interests. 

A malicious program that is installed on your local machine can act as the perfect secret police officer. It can watch your key-presses, survey the Web sites you visit, forbid you from using unapproved software, and obey and report back to its own remote masters without your knowledge. Software that invisibly works against the computer’s user in this way is generally called malware, and is usually the product of criminal attempts to control your computer by exploiting security flaws; it’s the code that spam e-mails and compromised Web sites often try to get you to download.

In Vietnam and Cuba, however, it is not gangs of hackers, but the national governments that are attempting to control the use of computers.

Earlier this month, the Vietnamese opposition group Viet Tan reported that the People’s Committee of Hanoi has required monitoring software installed on computers provided for Internet use in the city. In Cuba, Paco Mendez reported for the anticensorship organization Sesawe that hotels have been installing “Avila Link” on their public machines, a Cuban-made application that locks down Internet-connected PCs and prevents other software from being run.

Vietnamese authorities had previously been suspected of using the old-fashioned way of installing malware: by encouraging users to download misleading software online. Researchers investigating last year’s Google-China break-in discovered that one of the most widely-used pieces of software for Vietnamese computer users, VPSKeys, a utility that allows Vietnamese characters to be entered on a standard keyboard, had been infected with malware. The software had been altered to allow remote groups to spy on the computer owner’s key-presses, as well as hijack the host’s Internet connection to participate in coordinated attacks on external Web sites. The Vietnamese authorities denied any involvement in the malware, but it’s notable that the Web sites targeted were those critical of bauxite mining in Vietnam, a particularly sensitive topic for the Vietnamese government.

Hanoi’s order is reminiscent of China’s recent attempt to require “Green Dam Youth Escort” filtering software installed on all new PCs sold on the mainland. The Green Dam initiative on home computers was abandoned in China after a backlash from computer manufacturers (who complained that the software was buggy) and Chinese netizens (who berated the government for its clumsy attempts at control). Li Yizhong, the minister for industry and information technology, later stated that public computers, including schools and cybercafés, would still be required to install the program.

Neither Cuba nor Vietnam currently has many private computer-owning users. The vast majority of online activity takes place in the cybercafés and hotels of their cities. By controlling these machines, the authorities in these countries can remain the gatekeepers, overseers and censors of the media–for now, at least.